Premium Economy Airline Seats: a Good Deal?

Is premium economy class on top airlines like Cathay Pacific worth the upcharge?

Premium Economy airline seats
••• Premium Economy airline seats recline considerably more than cramped coach seats.  ©Cathay Pacific

Why Premium Economy Is a Popular Luxury Option for Cost-Effective Comfort

Airline passengers want to fly in greater comfort, especially on long flights. But they don’t want to triple their airfare by upgrading to Business Class. An enhanced form of economy seating bridges the gap.
This service class is usually called Premium Economy (but can be dubbed Economy Comfort or something similar). Premium Economy fares are costlier than economy, but much less than Business Class.

Premium Economy has caught on for several good reasons. Business travelers can fly in comfort for an airfare that their company can live with (Premium Economy tickets are often allowable expenses when Business Class are not). Long-haul flights in coach seats can be deadly. Many leisure travelers are willing to spend more for a decent in-flight experience and a better shot at getting some shuteye.
And Premium Economy seats are often available at the last minute at the boarding gate for a modest upcharge from Economy.

What, Exactly, Is Premium Economy, & How Is it Better than Economy?

As the name suggests, Premium Economy is an enhanced form of regular economy (“coach”) seating. Premium Economy seats are physically different from coach. They are not just good coach seats (as in bulkhead or exit row). They are slightly bigger than coach seats, with a bit more recline, and a few inches more legroom.

Premium Economy usually has its own cabin section, typically 26 to 34 seats.

Service Advantages of Premium Economy

Before flying, Premium Economy passengers have some benefits. Passengers may have their own checkin line at the airport. They have a more generous baggage allowance, often two free bags rather than one.

(The bags themselves can weigh a few pounds more.) Priority boarding allows Premium Economy passengers to get onto the jet first and settle in.

In the air, Premium Economy passengers fly in greater comfort than coach passengers. Seats are less cramped than Economy, with much more legroom and a wider cushion (typically around 3" more than Economy seats). Seats are more ergonomic, with contoured headrests, legrest, and lumbar support.  And there's more overhead stowage room for Premium Economy carryon bags than in Economy.

Premium Economy offers an enhanced inflight experience. Passengers get upgraded pillows and blankets and, usually, amenity kits. Plus, they have more entertainment options and better meals and drink service than in Economy.

OK, So What Don't You Get in Premium Economy?

You do not get airport VIP lounge access. You certainly do not get a flat-bed seat or even a seat with the deep recline of Business Class. And you don't get a glass of Champagne when you're seated.

How Much More Does Premium Economy Cost?

Here's the bad news: Premium Economy seats are nearly twice the fare of regular Economy. But the fare is still far less than Business Class. 

Here's the good news: Unsold Premium Economy seats may be available for very little more (sometimes as low as $20) the day of your flight, at the boarding gate.

So ask about upgrades when checking in.

What It's Like: Case Study of Premium Economy Flight on Cathay Pacific Airlines

I flew on a special Cathay Pacific flight from Seattle to Hong Kong that invited journalists to test out Premium Economy.

Premium Economy benefits kicked in long before we took off. Like First and Business Class, Premium Economy had its own airport checkin counters. We were allowed an additional free bag (two versus the one allowed in Economy) and an additional five pounds in weight for each. We had priority boarding and settled into our seats in a leisurely fashion.

Cathay’s Premium Economy benefits continued inflight.  As soon as we were seated, in our own Premium Economy section, we were served a welcome drink, just as in Business class. We got Premium Economy amenity kits with a sleep mask, earplugs, socks, and lip balm.

Noise-cancelling headsets were provided.

What Cathay’s Pacific Premium Economy Seats Were Like

Premium Economy had its own spacious section appropriately set between the Business Class and Economy cabins. Seats were wider than Economy, with more legroom. The recline in Premium Economy is 8" from vertical. The angle reminded me of a dentist's chair: you are resting leaning back, but you are still in a chair, not in a recliner.

The seat had more storage space for my personal stuff, providing easy access to my tablet, magazines, and water bottle.  Seats had a meal table and an additional drink table, so you could work during your meal. Each seat came with a power outlet with multiple ports. The personal TV screen was notably larger, with endless entertainment options. You could stream your own music or movies from your gadgets with a special cable; passengers should request one as soon as they board.

What Cathay’s Pacific Premium Economy Dining Was Like

Premium Economy passengers are served the same meal as Business Class cabin (yay!) It was excellent, with a good choice of premium wines at no extra charge (double yay!

For a Premium Economy Comparison Between Airlines...

See what TripoSavvy writer Starre Vartan thought of Premium Economy on Taiwan-based EVA Air (final slide of story, #14).

The Bottom Line: Can You Sleep in a Premium Economy Seat?

Your chances for shuteye are better in Premium Economy than cramped Economy. Of course, nothing compares with a flatbed seat in Business or First, but they are very costly. And Premium Economy's last-minute price should be very soothing!

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Disclosure: Cathay Pacific Airlines provided a complimentary Premium Economy flight for review purposes.